Every late-spring or early summer, when we are sent a sample of this delightful Jin Xuan milk oolong we are ‘wowed’ by its forthright milky-ness. This Nantou County-produced Jin Xuan milk oolong is quite different than our Alishan gao shan high mountain Jin Xuan milk oolong. We are very careful to select a highly-milky leaf for this offering, as this is what our customers expect in this selection.
While our Alishan gao shan high mountain Jin Xuan selections have wonderful flavor, elegance, and grace in the cup, most years they really have very little of the ‘milky’ flavor to speak of. (We normally offer specific plucks from both the Spring and Fall harvests of the gao shan version of Jin Xuan, whereas we only source the mid-Spring Pluck of this highly-milky, Nantou County harvest).
It is interesting to us to see how the ‘same’ cultivar responds differently to the climate and growing conditions within the tea growing regions of Taiwan. Unlike most other location-based sources for tea, such as Darjeeling or Ceylon, the different gardens and sub-regions of Taiwan are separated more by altitude than by horizontal distance. This Jin Xuan grows roughly 2,750 feet lower in altitude than our Alishan Gao shan high mountain Jin Xuan milk oolong, and it is quite apparent that the lower altitude favors the development of the plant lactones that create the ‘milky’ taste.
The ‘milky’ taste in milk oolong can be very elusive – some Jin Xuan teas have an abundance of it while others are quite subtle. Sometimes the milky taste fades almost before it is consciously noted by the tea drinker. The elusive milky taste is like a ghost flavor that one is not quite sure one actually tasted, because on the next sip – poof – it is gone.
This appearance/ disappearance of the milky taste can be attributed to the tea bushes/tea leaves developing (or not) an abundance of lactones (in its internal chemistry) which are necessary to yield this elusive taste. This is the reason that this particular milk oolong was so interesting to us. It has a definite milky taste that is the result of a natural combination of factors. Nothing has been added to this tea before, during or after manufacture.
Our two Jin Xuan milk oolongs are very different expressions of this sub-varietal of the tea plant. Jin Xuan oolong is a perfect example of why we find tea so intricate, full of surprises, and sometimes “unknowable”. Tea contains several hundred compounds and has the ability, under certain growing conditions and perfect/ imperfect weather, to show tastes that we still find thrilling, and that are determined more by nature than man.
We attribute this flavor to several factors:
- lower elevation growing conditions are a bit easier on the plants as they do not have to contend with high-altitude thin air and cooler days and nights
- the lower altitude may also allow more leaf hoppers to thrive, thus increasing the stimulus for the production of the lactones
- warmer temperature growing conditions allow the leaf to develop more lactones (in its internal chemistry ) that are necessary to yield this elusive ‘milk’ flavor
- a good understanding on the part of the tea farmer as to when the moment is right to pick and process this leaf for optimal ‘milky’ flavor
The result is this tea – something quite extraordinary with astonishing staying power in the cup. We found this oolong to be capable of 5 or 6 infusions, all of which retained the milky flavor. We normally have quite a bit of this tea at the start of the season (early summer) and intend to obtain more as the season progresses, but our suggestion would be this: don’t wait to try this tea or you may be disappointed in the years in which it sells out early. And if you love it, stock up early in the season!
Incidentally, this tea is delicious both hot and iced.
What is Milk Oolong?
There is quite a bit of misunderstanding about what milk oolongs are, and sadly there are many low-quality examples of this fine tea dogging about, too. Milk oolong is really a buyer-beware situation, and we often avoid walking right into the eye of the storm when it comes to tea controversy and confusion.
But this tea is so good that we wanted to shed some light on what milk oolong is, and what it isn’t, and introduce the ‘real-deal’ to our customers.
Simply put, these are lovely, sweet, lightly-roasted semiball-rolled style oolongs produced in various regions of Taiwan from a particular tea bush cultivar – Jin Xuan (Tai Cha #12.)
All of Taiwan’s great oolongs begin with specific tea bush cultivars that, in conjunction with the unique terroir of each location, influence the flavor of the tea. Although Jin Xuan is a relatively new cultivar (developed in the 1980’s) it is now one of Taiwan’s four main tea cultivars (dozens of cultivars and varietals are grown throughout Taiwan) and the cultivar behind the marketing of “milk oolong tea.”
In some tea growing regions, the flavor of this tea is transformed into an oolong that has a soft, creamy, ‘milky’ flavor. This is partially caused by a natural increase in production of the lactones in the leaf due to a reaction to the leaf being chewed just a little by the native leaf hoppers that live as companions in the gardens alongside the tea plants. These hoppers help to keep the population of harmful insects down during the off-season when tea leaf is not being harvested (which is most of the year!) and end up contributing to the chemical composition of this cultivar, in certain gardens, to a varying degree, depending on the year and season. Their presence also shows the lack of use of chemical pesticides, as they would not be present in the garden if pesticides were being used. Real milk oolong such as this is very appealing and delicious, and quite popular both in Taiwan and abroad.
However, it is important to understand that absolutely no milk (the dairy product from cows, sheep, or goats) is involved in the production of real Taiwan ‘milk oolong’.
Spend 30 minutes searching the internet for a definition of this tea and you will end up with many rather silly explanations of what it is, such as:
- tea that is plucked from tea bushes that have been irrigated with milk before being harvested
- tea made from tea leaves that have been soaked in milk
- tea made from tea leaves that have been steamed with milk in the manufacturing process
- tea made from tea leaves that have been dried with milk
- tea leaves that were hung over a steaming milk bath before drying
Really? Milk….really? Milk is not abundant in Taiwan (or any parts of East Asia, in fact), so how does this make sense?
Anyway, our customers can rest assured that our milk oolongs are from the Jin Xuan cultivars grown in Taiwan and should not be confused with any imitations of milk oolongs or low-quality teas that have been artificially flavored with a so-called ‘milk’ flavor. Real milk oolong is a natural Taiwan original, and has never been anywhere near the cool white-soul of the inside of a bottle of milk.
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